Juliette Kayyem

The game changer

One year ago today, politics collided with disaster recovery

By Juliette Kayyem
April 24, 2011

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IT WAS a year ago today when the BP oil spill actually began — or at least that’s when the political crisis did.

For several days after the fatal fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, there was no known leak. At the time, I was an assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security, where Secretary Janet Napolitano had been convening daily 9 a.m. calls with her senior leadership. At a certain point, we believed that the work was done for our department and its component agency, the Coast Guard. The fire was out, and now the Department of Justice would lead an investigation.

But a year ago this morning, Coast Guard official Mary Landry got on the call and told us, “There is a game changer.” The blowout preventer — the supposedly 100-percent foolproof device to shut off the oil from the undersea well — had, well, failed. There was a leak, several leaks perhaps. Shortly we would tell the American public.

A year later, for those of us intimately involved, it’s still hard to put the oil spill in any perspective. What happened last summer? The news of the spill triggered a four-month frenzy of despair and accusation: The response was too slow, the Gulf was dying, the beaches were filthy with oil, the economy was getting eviscerated, the government was failing.

At Homeland Security, my role was to coordinate the department’s policies with state and local response efforts. In the Gulf crisis, I was also assigned to assist National Incident Commander Thad Allen with the interagency and political issues surrounding the spill. My summer included 22 trips to the Gulf, meetings at midnight and 6 a.m. the next morning, twice-weekly briefings at the White House, a regular morning call with the Gulf governors, congressional hearings, investigations, FOIA requests, and a whole lot of yelling.

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally. What happened last summer was that the ground rules that had guided oil-spill responses for two decades were exposed as politically infeasible — even though it was those ground rules that guided the entire response from start to finish.

THE OPERATIONAL response, led by Thad Allen, occurred in the field. Countless Coast Guard officials, environmental cleanup crews, BP engineers, and state and local first responders focused on closing the well; used 1.8 million gallons of dispersants on the surface and sea bottom; burned oil when it surfaced; protected marshlands with protective boom; skimmed oil if it was near shore; and cleaned up tar balls when oil hit the shore. They set up incident command posts around the Gulf and in BP’s headquarters in Houston to quickly identify where oil — dispersed and shifting with ocean currents, flowing at rates much greater than the government’s optimistic early estimates — would reach shore and to try to stop it before it got there. If not for this response, much more of the Gulf shoreline would have been severely damaged by oil.

Yet, the whole time, we were playing by a rulebook that no one could admit we were playing by. This was true not just for the White House, but for the governors and local leaders as well.

The operational side of the BP oil spill response begins in Alaska, where the lessons from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill had guided the Coast Guard, state and local responders, and the oil industry ever since. Under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, a unified command — the Coast Guard, the locals, and the polluting company — would respond together to pick up the oil and pay for the pollution. Because the polluter would pay, the industry had an incentive to prevent spills and work quickly with public agencies to clean them up. Under this law, BP was the responsible party in the Gulf, but there was no moral judgment behind it. The law was agnostic as to blame.

Politically, this was unsustainable. Men had died; the Gulf was threatened; residents’ livelihoods had been destroyed. Even putting aside BP’s public-relations fiascos — former CEO Tony Hayward wasn’t the only one who wanted his life back — the notion that the US government would stand hand in hand singing “Kumbaya’’ with BP as we worked together to fight the oncoming oil was absurd. Thus, Thad Allen would become the voice and leader of the response, BP would be kicked off the podium (literally: their daily press briefings with the Coast Guard were canceled), and the administration would milk out of BP a $20 billion claim settlement for spill victims that was nowhere required by federal law.

THE MEMORY of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the same region that was threatened by the oil spill, created additional political burdens. The Oil Pollution Act demanded payments and cleanups, but not much else. It was all designed before Hurricane Katrina, which showed that public expectations of what the government ought to do far exceeded any traditional notion of emergency response. That the media began calling the spill “Obama’s Katrina’’ only intensified the political imperative: It was not enough to clean up the oil; the Gulf had to come back stronger and better.

The Gulf governors found the post-Exxon Valdez ground rules unrealistic as well. Under the law, states were required to work with the Coast Guard and the industry to plan an Area Contingency Plan, a mutual agreement by all parties about what response techniques would be used in the event of a major spill. Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.

Thus, the “boom wars.” Boom is a kind of barrier that is laid out to absorb oil before it hits pristine marsh. Because it is very delicate and not easily moved once laid down, it is intended as a last resort. It is not intended for open beaches; indeed, in the strange mechanics of oil cleanup, oil hitting open beaches is a good thing, because it forms tar balls that volunteers combing the shoreline can clean up.

But boom was a quantifiable thing, and no governor could be seen as having less than the guy next door.

In the three hardest-hit states, each governor had his own approach. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal would nominate himself the state’s oil spill coordinator; his public criticism would ultimately force BP to fund some specious response efforts not outlined in his own plan. Alabama’s Bob Riley felt, as many of his constituents did, that his state had been ignored during Katrina, and he insisted on equal time and effort despite Alabama’s limited shoreline. Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, meanwhile, would handle the spill with a coolness that was impressive even to the most ardent Democratic partisans; he regularly played golf throughout the summer.

What they all agreed on was their dislike of the oil-drilling moratorium. When the Obama administration announced a moratorium on all off-shore drilling until the problems of the blowout preventer were better understood, the broad public hostility in the Gulf states was palpable. The spill was bad enough; the moratorium was, to them, evidence that this administration was responding to its own political needs and not the economic needs of an oil-dependent region. While the moratorium had nothing to do with the spill response, it bred a public antagonism towards the federal government’s overall efforts.

IN A democracy, any disaster is inherently political. This isn’t a criticism. The administration did, in my view, what any compassionate and concerned administration ought to do; the governors would similarly defend themselves. And maybe first responders are too quick to criticize elected officials for involving themselves in major disasters; leadership is what we elect them for. They can assign blame, demand resources, and channel popular outrage in a way a by-the-book field response cannot.

And yet the political response isn’t why the Gulf has rebounded so well.

By coincidence, I was swimming in the Gulf last week, during my kid’s spring break. Despite what we might have predicted a year ago, the Gulf is not dead, the fish are edible, and the beaches are open. That’s because the American public only saw one half of the response — the more contentious, free-wheeling, rule-bending political side. But amid all that frenzy, people whose names you will never know worked everyday to fight the oil, adapt to changing demands, and kill the well. Success should not only be measured by the Gulf today, but by the fact that this other response — the real response — could function side by side with the politics of disaster.

Juliette Kayyem is former homeland security advisor for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.